Disability History: Projects and the Personal

By: A.C

The informal talk on “Disability History in the Granite City” at our premises on 25 April, was well received by the two dozen or so people who ventured out on a Spring evening. 

Our main speaker Andrew Hunter, explained why the History project of recording disabled people’s experiences of being disabled was so important.

Andrew had travelled to various places like the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, Touch Bionics ( the Scottish site of the first ‘bionic’ arm prosthetic in the world) and to many of own members and others who told their stories about their disability. These videos which were funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, does not mean an end to the Project. 

Andrew’s message was to everybody who is disabled, and of whatever age, to keep telling us their stories,   so we have an archive of material that will be useful to social researchers.

The second part of the evening was taken by Norman Miller, a local historian. He related anecdotes and stories in broad Doric, of how dangerous some jobs were in the industries of the past like quarrying, stonemasonry or shipbuilding, and how that led to disability of some kind. This led to a discussion on more personal experiences by the audience who were very appreciative, knowledgeable and understanding of sensory loss and disability.

As a contributor to this blog and a family historian, I feel that to answer Andrew’s call for  more material I can now relate an example that happened in my mother’s family in the Central Belt.

My mother was disabled with Polio, but she was also quite skilled with sign–language. This puzzled me as a youngster as I did not know anyone who was deaf.  Fast forward quite a few decades, and I started doing family research the hard way, by visiting the Family History section of Libraries and hunting down relevant material.

My great –grandfather on my maternal side, was a very large muscley iron–works puddler born in 1875. (He was the man who ladled out the molten iron from the blast furnace). He was by all accounts a real character, and he lived to a great age, in fact until I was about 5 years old. I found though, that asking about his background met a brick wall of silence. He had a huge family, but I could not find that vital link to his background and who his parents were.

Then one day, I was trying to prise some info out of mother, and she casually mentioned she was named for her grandmother. At last I had a name – of sorts – that I could search for.

She still would not tell me the reason why she knew sign–language, but offered a titbit that distant relatives who had lived in the Dumfries area were deaf.

Then one day I was searching a census and found my elusive great–grandmother as a young woman. The information contained on it explained so many things – and secrets – in the family.  

My great great grandmother was born deaf-mute , and she had a son out of wedlock who was the mighty  Iron Puddler who had so many children.  She was also a steam loom operator.  She brought a successful paternity suit against the father, which in today’s terms without DNA seemed an impossible task for a deaf mute woman abandoned by an uncaring cad.

However the story does not stop there. My great great grandmother then went on to marry another person who was a stonemason. A profoundly deaf man, who had sign language.

They moved to the Dumfries area, and set up house, and many more children in the process. Their fifth born son was sent to Donaldson’s School for the Deaf in in Edinburgh in 1895. He later became a teacher there, and his family also became teachers of the deaf.

So the “relatives” in Dumfries were in fact the granny of my mother. The deaf ex–steam loom weaver along with her stonemason husband’s sisters actually had a cottage school in that area, that provided schooling for deaf children, and they taught lip –reading and sign language.

Some things like illegitimacy, deafness or disability were family secrets not to be discussed, even when my mother was an aged woman. I think had the Might Puddler been legitimate then the fact of deafness would not have mattered a jot.

Had I not had an interest in family history, and persevered when I was being stonewalled by well-meaning relatives about the Iron Puddler’s background, I would never have uncovered such a rich history of a very determined deaf woman who left her child in Lanarkshire, to grow up with her parents.  This was a very common occurrence in the past, as there was a great stigma attached both to her and her son. Nowadays we would wonder what all the secrecy and fuss was about.  

I suspect that as she was the only child, her parents suspected a faulty gene or heritable condition had emerged and they had no more children. They were also very God–Fearing people who might have thought along the lines that as their sole deaf daughter had arrived disabled, they were being punished for their sins of conceiving her out of wedlock also. 

Researching that family lineage got me in touch with distant relatives in Australia, who sent me even more information. They did not even know about the Mighty Puddler, and thought I was wholly mistaken, if not also a troublemaker, suggesting such things about their revered grandmother.  Until I sent the documented proof of the court case, birth and  the family names that honoured their granny, who was also my great great grandmother.

So quite apart from living with the knowledge of my mother’s polio disability – there was this unknown family history which was being kept secret.

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